I find a certain frivolity seeping into my views on this general election. One only has a life sentence as a voter, and I am 86. I therefore have an egotistic tendency to judge the two candidates for our premiership by their capacity to avoid a head-on collision between Parliament and the trade unions for the next few years.
If Mr. Callaghan is put to the test, we will see a pull-baker pull-devil situation. He will prove a better negotiator than might be supposed. For one thing, he is a genial man. I once worked with him on quite a long and trying TV program, before he came to high office, and he was considerate and, though he is probably by nature tetchy, forced himself to be level-tempered. Definitely he is for agreement. He has thought it out, and that is what he prefers.
There is a perpetual struggle going on behind that chubbiness. During our comradeship in a TV studio, he told my husband that he hated Mr. Macmillan. "Why?" said my husband. "How can you dislike the man who not only writes such good prose, is the most polished comedian who ever used the House of Commons as his stage, and wasn't at all a bad prime minister?" Mr. Callaghan replied that that was as it might be, but he thought Mr. Macmillan had no manners.
When anybody on the Labor side of the House was making an important fighting speech, it was Mr. Macmillan's custom to sit back on the front bench, cross his legs, shut his eyes and pretend to go to sleep. It was, said Mr. Callaghan, flushing, insolent. "Insolent?" said my husband. "It's just a classic House of Commons joke, an oldtime gimmick. A century ago everybody did it on both sides of the House, and he goes on doing it, because he knows all the tricks backward, and he's aware that he looks damned funny with all those yards of arms and legs sprawling about, every inch of them sound asleep."
To which Mr. Callaghan said with genuine wonder, "Do you really mean that everybody used to do it?" I said, "Well, my father said so." Mildly Mr. Callaghan remarked, "Well, I can't hold it against him then." And began a sentence which I think, had he finished it, would have ended with an admission that he knew he was apt to be oversuspicious.
I imagine that was a characteristic half-admission. I fancy he suffers from a sensible knowledge of his own merits and a suppressed but still itchy sense of his defects. And when that latter trait comes uppermost, he is apt to try and give himself confidence by borrowing the personality of someone who is naturally confident.
This can be disastrous. He made an appalling error this winter, when our weather was at its worst, and he returned from a conference in the West Indies, where he had been photographed enjoying a nice warm swim, and set foot on a snowbound and strike-bound country, he thought fit to tell the shivering reporters that they had been publishing unfair things about him in his absence, and wasn't prepared to put up with it, and that he had not yet had his breakfast. Heaven knows whose personality he was borrowing that time. Possibly Churchill's. At any rate it did not fit, and the reporters went away disgruntled, saying rude things about his ancestry and asking why he had not had breakfast on the plane.
Now, this character that is good, and yet not quite as useful as it might be becaue of his weaknesses (a character like jam that has a good flavor but has not set), is of great importance because of the special stress that is going to be put on him if he should be elected our next premier. If there is a hung Parliament, that stress will not only be an iron hand 'round the Labor government's heart; it will be the continuance of a strain that has lasted too long for easy endurance. Mr. Callaghan is hamstrung by the degree to which the Labor Party is dependent on the votes of trade-union supporters at the poll, and the votes of trade-unionist members in the House of Commons: And this is known to everybody, and particularly well-known to the trade unions.
This situation is so well-known that to mention it may seem unnecessary: But there is a special reason why the situation is more dangerous than might have been expected. Up till the First World War, the Labor Party and the trade unions were close-knit by reason of a shared history of rebellion. But after 1917 the growth of the Soviet Union meant all over the world that everywhere the left-wing divided itself into the two main streams, one of the Social Democratic Party and the other the Communist Party, and as time went on these were subdivided into many more channels, including Marxism, neo-Marxism, all the way along the scale to anarchism.
These break-off parties naturally attract more trade unionists than people free from such ties, for the reason that trade unionists find membership of such parties useful to define and accentuate the differences between the groups. A young militant trade unionist may find it easier to range himself against the more conservative and older members of his union if he is also an orthodox communist, and he feels even more impressive if he is left of communism, say on the Trotskyite camp.
To counter this process, the Labor Party needs a dynamic pesonality who can excite deep feelings of loyalty, and when one looks in search of such a one among its leaders, there is none. Instead there is a great big hole that was left by Aneurin Bevan. He died nearly 30 years ago; but we still see that hole. He had that gift of welding together men and women into a generous army that was marching to the relief of the poor. I knew this because both he and I were in our early days socialists under the inspiration of the great British leader called Robert Blatchford; in later life I felt that I could no longer hold any formal political faith: I just try to serve the cause of liberty as I can, in the style of Eliza in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" who leaped from ice-pack to ice-pack as the bloodhounds bayed behind her. But always when I met Aneurin Bevan I felt that we belonged to the same army and I had an obligation toward him as to a fellow-soldier.
There is nobody today who evokes the same feeling. A man, however great he is, cannot disclose his personality to the people on TV. You need an audience that has made sacrifices to get to the hall, and which sees the man himself out on the platform.
I think I would prefer Mrs. Thatcher to Mr. Callaghan as prime minister for another reason related to the possibility and the perils of a hung Parliament. Let me warn anybody who underrates Mrs. Thatcher to think again. She is not an obtuse, self-satisfied female Babbitt. She has two academic degrees that do her credit, and she is te daughter of a tradesman and a tradesman's wife, who taught her the way the world goes for most of us. But she has two handicaps. One is her sex. Men would rather be led to ruin by one of their own kind than saved by a woman. The other is her beauty, which gets her nowhere. She is not on the chorus line, she is somewhere else, and where that is, it is better to be Queen Elizabeth than Mary Queen of Scots. But she has many advantages, including a flaw that may be useful.
Last year I was standing in front of a television set talking to my secretary, when, with an eye on the screen, she remarked, "Mrs. Thatcher must be a very silly woman to go to Belgrade in midwinter without a topcoat." As the picture showed snow on the ground on the railing platform at Belgrade, where she was alighting, wisdom seemed to be on my secretary's side; and I saw even greater unwisdom in Mrs. Thatcher's choice of a companion. He was a Tory M.P. of little distinction. A few days later I asked an adviser of Mrs. Thatcher why she should have gone to Yugoslavia with no topcoat and the wrong M.P. Her adviser replied grimly: "Probably somebody told her to be sure to take a fur coat with her to Yugoslavia and not to take Mr. XY. She is a woman of adamantine obstinacy."
This trait may be of great service to a Conservative government. She can be firm without risking the dangers that firmness would bring on Mr. Callaghan, in view of his troubles with the trade-unionist membership of the Labor Party; and the effect of those troubles on his decisions has made the British public long for a good dose of firmness, to be taken at regular intervals.
It must be remembered that Great Britain is facing problems that are entirely new; and being left or right does not help toward solving them. We are not facing the problem of poverty any longer. We are facing the problem of what happens to the money that the state insists on being given to the worker because he has earned it. What do we do to prevent that money being suddenly made worthless by inflation? Some people think that they know exactly what to do to fulfill that end. Domestically, our Labor chancellor of the exchequer often tries to tell us his solution, which involves the stoppage of pay rises for which trade unions are loudly asking. Now what is the road out of that situation? Mr. Healey's brunette plumpness trembles as he gives out his budgets on the TV, and only the blind and the deaf could help knowing that his colleagues are just as embarrassed. Mrs. Thatcher would, I think, give out her solution (which would not be so unlike his) with one rattle of the sabre, and no disturbance of her blonde hair, and that will be that, and many of the customers will be pleased.
Even so, her battle will not be smooth; we must remember that the males in the House of Commons, on either side, will certainly, sooner or later, let her down. I am proud that as a yound girl I worked for women's suffrage; but I fear it would have been better if at the same time I could have worked to take away the vote from men.